Gov. Kay Ivey announced today that Alabamians will be required to wear masks in public beginning Thursday.
The order, intended to fight the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, comes as Alabama has watched infection rates climb rapidly in recent weeks.
“Folks, the numbers just do not lie,” Ivey said in a news conference that was televised live from Montgomery this morning. The governor said the state reported more than 2,100 new cases Tuesday.
The order takes effect Thursday at 5 p.m. Masks will be required “when interacting within 6 feet with people of another household.”
Ivey’s announcement of the order from state health officer Dr. Scott Harris comes as the state logged 2,141 new cases of COVID-19 infection statewide on Wednesday. There have been 18,717 new cases reported in the last 14 days, and at least 1,183 people in Alabama have died from the disease.
Harris, who also spoke at today’s news conference said masks are the best available way to avoid spreading the virus.
Anniston’s Regional Medical Center said today it will again bar most visitors to the hospital as the number of patients it’s treating for COVID-19 keeps climbing and the virus spreads rapidly through Alabama.
“Alabama is not headed in the right direction,” Harris said. “I believe that this mask ordinance is the right thing to do because it will prevent disease transmission. We really don’t have a lot of other options at this time.”
Ivey, asked by a reporter at the news conference about enforcing the order, noted that people who defy the mask mandate can be fined $500 and potentially jailed under state law, but that that’s not the government’s goal.
“The goal is to demonstrate the importance, the urgency of engaging this important tool that we all have access to, that’s a face covering,” Ivey said. “CDC and others continue to tell us that of all the things we do, wearing a mask is the most helpful, especially to help slow down community spread.”
Ivey said the state is counting on businesses and local governments to help enforce the order, but that local law enforcement won’t be asked to go looking for maskless people to arrest.
“But we are asking everyone to do a better job practicing social distancing, personal hygiene, and now, wearing face masks,” she said.
Pressure taken off municipalities
The new order will require masks statewide, a policy that many cities in the state have been exploring and figuring out how to enforce.
The Anniston City Council on Wednesday morning announced a called meeting to take place on Thursday at 5:30 p.m., apparently to take action on a potential mask ordinance, but Ivey’s announcement prompted the city to cancel that meeting.
Last week, the council discussed at length the possibility of a mask ordinance, which Mayor Jack Draper expressed enforcement-related concerns over, cautioning that such an order would need to be “well-tailored.”
Anniston’s city spokesman said the city had no comment on the new order. Attempts to reach Draper for comment were unsuccessful.
The city of Jacksonville also initiated talks on Monday to consider a mandatory mask ordinance. Sandra Sudduth, the council president, said the state order takes pressure off the city.
“I just talked to the mayor, and anything that the state does overrides the city,” Sudduth said by phone Wednesday. “We were planning to get together to come up with an ordinance from the city of Jacksonville, but since the governor has done that we won’t have to do it now.”
Sudduth originally planned to organize a committee of health experts and law enforcement officials to put together an ordinance, but explained that the city now plans no further action.
“That helps us out because it probably has more teeth in it than what we would have done,” she said.
At Monday’s council meeting, Jacksonville police Chief Marcus Wood expressed concern that the police department could become “inundated” with an influx of calls reporting people in public not wearing masks. Wood on Wednesday said that he still has that concern in light of the new order.
“I could see us still having the same type of effect on people calling to report people who are not wearing masks,” Wood said.
Wood has not had the opportunity to discuss with the mayor how the state’s order will be enforced, he said, but he expects to seek guidance from the state attorney general’s office.
“I’m sure, just like before, we’re gonna get some guidance from the AG’s office to help interpret language in that order and we’re gonna follow whatever the AG’s office mandates,” Wood said.
Walmart, Sam’s Club also to require masks
The state order came just moments after Walmart and Sam’s Club announced that all customers of those stores will be required to wear a face covering, a sign that masks are on the minds of many companies and governments nationwide.
Walmart Inc. said the policy will take effect Monday, though the majority of its stores are in areas where a government mandate to wear masks already exists, according to the retailer.
“Currently about 65 percent of our more than 5,000 stores and clubs are located in areas where there is some form of government mandate on face coverings,” said the retailers’ chief operating officers in a statement Wednesday.
Walmart plans to hire health ambassadors, who will be charged with standing at the store entrance to remind incoming customers of the store’s new mask policy. All stores will have a single entrance, the company said. Sam’s Club will follow a similar process, and provide complimentary masks to members that do not have them.
“We appreciate the understanding and cooperation of our customers and members in wearing face coverings to protect their safety and the safety of our associates.”